Books

HARD LANDING IN MOMSVILLE

In a funny first novel, a hip urban chick stumbles into unplanned family-hood

JUDITH TIMSON October 27 2003
Books

HARD LANDING IN MOMSVILLE

In a funny first novel, a hip urban chick stumbles into unplanned family-hood

JUDITH TIMSON October 27 2003

HARD LANDING IN MOMSVILLE

In a funny first novel, a hip urban chick stumbles into unplanned family-hood

JUDITH TIMSON

MOTHERHOOD for most women never used to be a choice, it used to be a destiny. Now it’s a choice and like all choices, it is not only endlessly examined but it presumably requires a level of consciousness in order to make that fateful decision. Unless you are Frances Mackenzie, the thirtysomething heroine of Playing House, a deft new comic novel by Canadian author Patricia Pearson. Frances—Frannie—seems to be wedged in a literary crawl space between Bridget Jones (single woman, bad habits, looking for love) and Kate Reddy (married, harried working mother of two in the smash British novel I Don’t Know How She Does It).

A single woman with vices (her apartment’s a mess, she drinks too much), Frannie lives in New York, and is in love with her big-city life and her even bigger career dreams as an editor at a publication improbably named The Pithy Review. But after barfing into a sweater display at the Gap, she suddenly realizes she is accidentally pregnant by a man she just started dating. A man whose last name she can’t even spell (Puddie? Pudhee?). Mind you, Calvin Puddie is a very nice man, one who doesn’t even run away when he hears the news. But Mr. Right? An impecunious experimental jazz musician from Cape Breton, Calvin is “very, very quiet, really bordering on mute.” It is Frannie’s daunting emotional task in this funny and sometimes tender novel to come to terms with pregnancy and her new domestic life, because at 33 she’s determined to go through with it. And so she needs to figure out the pieces of the puzzle life has handed her—“a man, a woman, a child.” Because of an immigration snafu, Frannie gets stuck in Canada, where Calvin joins her to begin the march to parental chaos, living in Frannie’s brother’s pathologically tasteful home, and attending prenatal classes, where Frannie spies one pregnant woman “trudging like a pack mule with her stout husband shooing her along with one hand hovering at her back.”

Of course there are bumps along the way to maternal if not marital bliss (who marries anymore?). Frannie goes home to Toronto to visit her coolly analytical mother, who chides, “you are a member of what must be the first generation of women in history to continue to perceive themselves as teenaged mothers 15 years past high school.”

Even after Lester, her baby boy (presumably named after the author’s grandfather, prime minister Lester B. Pearson) is born, and Frannie is not only staring the evidence of her new domestic life in the face but breast-feeding it, she continues to fantasize about other lives and other men. Calvin may flee to New York briefly to play music, but Frannie is deep into commitment phobia herself. Only during a farcical visit to Calvin’s Cape Breton family does Frannie begin to figure out how to embrace it all.

Pearson, author of When She Was Bad, an award-winning non-fiction book on women and crime, doesn’t tread lightly at times. The body-fluid report gets tedious, and a riff on Frannie desperately wanting to keep drinking while she is pregnant leads her to joke that she’ll say to her damaged baby, “Look how much Helen Keller accomplished, sweetie.” But subversion is also her strength, and the best books these days about the travails of modem women are the ones that have both epiphanies and laughs. Frannie’s revelations are worth waiting for, especially because she is emblematic of a generation of accomplished women who are apparently still searching for suitable men with whom to breed. When it comes to that all-important partner, you don’t find the perfect one, Frannie muses. “You just keep running like Wile E. Coyote and all of a sudden you’re off the cliff. You fall into your life with the man who is running beside you.”

One might be tempted to urge Frannie, enveloped in her koala bear bathrobe and her fugue of domestic despair, to grow up a bit. But actually, it's way more fun to jump off the cliff with her. É